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AP Automation 101: Going Back to Basics 

March 1, 2024
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Need an AP Automation 101 course? You’ve come to the right place. In this article we’re going back to basics, explaining what AP automation is, how it differs from manual AP processes and what benefits AP departments can expect from automating.  

No time to read? No problem. You can multitask and listen to our “Net 30” podcast episode on the basics of AP automation by clicking the player below or downloading it on your favorite podcast platform, including Spotify, Apple, iHeart and Pandora. 

Accounts Payable Before Automation

Rhonda Greene, AvidXchange’s principal solutions consultant, has worked in accounts payable for decades. When she started in the industry, paper, rubber stamps and filing cabinets were the tools at her disposal. “We didn’t even have PCs on our desks at that time,” she said. “And the paper cuts, come on now!” 

Recounting an average day in her early career, Greene said, “It just took so long to do anything because you would spend half a day opening the mail with a letter opener and then stamping the invoices received. The team could spend an entire day just on a check run because you’re printing all those checks, and then we used to stamp them.” 

“We had dedicated rooms just for filing cabinets. And then we had off-site storage that we had to pay for,” Greene continued. “And when you had to go out there to pull something for an audit, you were literally climbing up the cabinets, and you never knew if you would find it.” 

Greene shared that even today, individuals working in AP share similar experiences with her. “I just cringe and I’m just like, ‘Oh, we could help you,’” she said.  

"It was just an extremely manual process that took all day it seemed to do anything."

AP Automation Benefits

What is AP automation? According to Greene, “Automation is literally life-changing. And I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t mean it. It’s not a cliché.”  

Greene said that while AP automation changes everything, the core mission of the AP team remains the same. But staff spend less time on tasks like tracking down an invoice that disappeared from someone’s desk and more time on essential functions like researching potentially fraudulent transactions. As a result, AP teams can scale as business grows without adding headcount.  

On the recent “Back to Basics” episode of our “Net 30” podcast, Greene and Host Chris Elmore gave an AP Automation 101 lesson and discussed a number of its benefits, including:  

Real-time access to dataDigitally pinpoint the status of an invoice and related payment with the click of a button.
Cloud-based visibilityAccess invoices anywhere at any time on any device.
Seamless invoice approval Route invoices throughout the approval channel in hours versus days.
Report creation Efficiently pull data to help inform decisions across departments, aiding in business growth.
Improved accuracy Utilize technology to double-check information, reducing human errors.
Reduced fraud Leverage technology to flag anomalies.
Better supplier relationships Ensure on-time payments.
Support for procurementAutomate PO matching.
Maintain basic foundationsRetain control over your processes while enhancing efficiency.

In addition to these AP automation benefits, AP teams save time with automation, allowing them to focus on other important work, such as:  

Vendor file maintenanceClean up files and ensure consistency for easy lookup and updated information.
Account reconciliation Empower staff to assist with reconciling the AP liability account.
Bank reconciliationCheck bank statements against internal records to ensure all transactions are reported.
Outstanding check follow-upEnsure payees have deposited issued checks. Cancel and re-issue as warranted.
Cost-saving initiativesIdentify opportunities for negotiating discounts with vendors based on volume or early payments.

“Automation literally is ‘the way.’”

Common AP Automation Questions

In our “Back to Basics” podcast episode, Elmore asked Greene a number of common AP automation questions departments may consider when first getting started with the technology. Greene’s answers are outlined below.

How do you know if you need AP automation or not?

Your organization should consider automation if you’re not able to handle your AP volume in a reasonable time – If you can’t code your invoices, get them entered in and get them paid on time.  

And sometimes it’s not about volume. Sometimes organizations choose AP automation for more efficient access to invoice and payment data.  

Will AP automation change the accounting process we currently have?

It’s going to change it by making it more efficient. It’s going to improve it.  

But the foundation, all of the internal controls that you’ve built around your processes, won’t change.   

What’s the true cost of a manual accounts payable process?  

Organizations need to consider all of the things that factor in, not just the salaries and the benefits of the people doing the job, but all of the other costs involved. Getting the payments made and the costs of postage, envelopes and the check printer are included, but there’s a lot more to it.  

You really have to sit down and analyze it. AvidXchange can help you calculate ROI and understand what else your organization can gain from automation.  

How will accounts payable automation work with my current accounting system?  

That’s one of the most important things you need to look for when you’re looking for automation. Make sure that the solution you choose can integrate with your accounting system.   

An AP automation tool will be able to capture your invoices, code them and approve them. But your accounting system remains the system of record. All of that data from your AP automation tool should sync back over to the accounting system where it should live.  

How does the implementation process work?  

AvidXchange operates in the cloud, so an organization doesn’t have to physically install anything.  

Our implementation team has assisted in hundreds of implementations and we’ve got strong integrations with many accounting systems. Often, our integration and onboarding is 30-45 days depending on the organization’s size and the products they’ve chosen.  

Final Thoughts on Automating AP

“[Automating AP] is all about creating efficiencies and a better process,” according to Greene. “I’ve been there, and I know the difference it can make.”  

If you’re interested in learning more about AP automation 101, listen to our podcast by clicking below or streaming it on your favorite platform, including Spotify, Apple, iHeart and Pandora. 

To learn more about how AP automation can benefit your organization, schedule a time to connect with one of our experts.  

Complete Transcript

Please note: The “Net 30” podcast is designed for audio consumption. Transcripts are generated using speech recognition software and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.


Hi, my name is Chris Elmore. I am AvidXchange’s Chief Evangelist and I’m the host of the Net 30 podcast. On the Net 30 podcast, we meet with industry leaders to unpack problems and solutions and talk about innovations that are impacting financial professionals. The best part about this? We’re going to do it all within 30 minutes. So let’s get into it. 

Rhonda, thanks for joining. You’ve been on a couple of times.  


Yeah. I’m a regular now.  


You are. You are. We call you a friend of the show.  


Well, thanks for having me.  


For people that don’t know you, what’s the fancy title? Principal Solution Solutions Consultant. What should folks know about you though? 


I really enjoy my job because as a Principal Solutions Consultant, I work with our sales reps to sell our products. And I’m talking to my peers because years and years ago I was a longtime AP manager and so I sat in their seat and I know firsthand the pain. 


So we have a couple of topics today. The first thing we’re gonna do is we’re, broadly we’re gonna talk about finance professionals focusing on a new way of impacting their business. Talk about doing more with less, being a little more strategic in the upcoming calendar year. The second thing in order to kind of give folks a glimpse into what are possible changes, we’re just going to go back to the basics. 

So I have three questions for you. Question number one, we’ll get into all of these. What’s a traditional versus a modern AP process? So we’re going to kind of compare and contrast both of those. And the other is, and this is back to the basics, what’s the benefit of accounts payable automation? We’re even gonna, I’m even gonna ask you for a definition, which I think is really important. 

But the third thing is what questions should folks ask, you know, before they automate or maybe during the automation process. But really, kind of preparing people to get rid of the paper and change their process. 


I’m really giving my age away here, but back when I started in accounting there were no such things as laptops so you were in the office all the time, but also we didn’t even have PCs on our desks at that time. It was the stone ages, but everything was manual and the biggest thing that stays with me is all of the paper. 


And I know people say that, but it really does. We had dedicated rooms just for filing cabinets. And then we had off site storage that we had to pay for. And when you had to go out there to pull something like for an audit or something, you were climbing up, like literally climbing up the cabinets and stuff and you never knew if you would find it, right? 

Like is that invoice really going to be where it’s supposed to be? And there were times that it wasn’t.  


It seems like that’s out of the scope of your job – climbing.  


Yeah, I mean exactly. Thank you and it just took so long to do anything because you would spend half a day opening the mail with a letter opener and then stamping the invoices received and it was just an extremely manual process that took all day it seemed to do anything.  

And when it came time to make payments – that literally was an all day thing. I’ve worked for some large corporations that process thousands of invoices a month and literally the team could spend an entire day just on a check run because you’re printing all those checks and then we used to stamp them. 


It was physical. 


Oh, yeah. I mean, and the paper cuts. Come on now. Yeah. So, lots and lots of overtime hours, especially as you got toward each month end, year end. It was stressful is what it was.  


Was there ever a need or a thought, “Well, we need to hire more people?” Oh, yeah. That was a constant push and pull? Absolutely. And ownership or leadership or management, did they like say like, “No, I can’t do it.” 


No, because they knew that we had to get the invoices paid and it was like, “Whatever you need. Let’s just make it happen.” You know, it’s been years and years ago, but I remember it well and when I hear people today that still talk about having a similar situation and similar process, I just cringe and I’m just like, “Oh, we could help you.” 


Were the good old days all that good?  


Well, you know, you like to look back on days fondly and yeah, there was some great times, but then I worked all the time. Like when my kids were little, it was like my husband had to bring them up to the office to see me on every Saturday. Yeah. Every Saturday. 


Yeah. So you actually answered my first question. What’s the AP process with paper and without paper?  


Automation is literally life changing. And I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t mean it. It’s not a cliche.  

Oh,  but honestly, not having to deal with all the paper and taking hours just to be able to even get to the point where you’re able to look at the invoices and figure out how to code them. 


And automation changes everything. And you have access to your invoices and all of your information whenever you need it. And you’re not worried about, “Where’s this invoice? Like, I think we put it on John’s desk, but it’s now been a week and it’s disappeared.” So all of that goes away because your primary job as an AP manager is to get those invoices coded correctly and paid on time. 


That hasn’t changed. 


Oh, it’s still. And when you were talking about back to basics, I’m like, the foundation is a hundred percent the same. It’s just how we execute it now. And automation literally is the way.  


If someone said, “Okay, well, what’s the definition of accounts payable, what would you say?” 


Well, I’d say it’s the most important thing is you still have all of the control that you need to maintain from a financial standpoint. But now you have real time access to your data. You’re able to pull it up at any time. You’re able to approve invoices seamlessly and get them through the chain in a matter of hours, where before it took days. So to me, automation is creating efficient processes while maintaining that basic foundation of control.  


That was my next question. What’s the need for it?  


Ah, people always ask me – I’ll have controllers or CFOs say, “Well, you know, I don’t want to let Sally go.” Or, “I have five people and I love all these people.” And it’s like, well, there’s still a need because you still need someone to make sure that you ordered that product right and that it’s good to go and that it’s coded correctly. 


But essentially, now businesses are able to scale without adding additional headcount. But more importantly, you’re able to take when we go back and talk about foundations and controls and making sure you’re in compliance. It’s having the time to work on those things, like your vendor file, making sure that the data is clean in there. 


You have W9s for everyone. We’re going to get into that. Yeah, but I’m just saying all that takes time and now you have it where you didn’t before.  


That’s a pretty good tee up. So let’s talk benefits. I want to talk about kind of the main benefit of accounts payable automation, but I, you know, you and I go way back on this thing and I’ve always told people that any automation, not just accounts payable, any automation is only as good as the time that it produces. 


So it’s purpose and outcome to employ accounts payable automation is to free up time. I think the thing people struggle with, and I would love for you to just give as much detail to this is, “Well, if I free the time up. What do I do?” Yeah. And by the way, it’s got to be better than what they were doing. 


Oh, 100%. And really, Chris, you’re absolutely right, but I think the underlying feeling is I’m going to lose my job. Yeah. You know, and so it’s the fear of change and the unknown that really drives it. So really it’s like our job to make people comfortable and let them understand that no, there’s still very important roles for AP teams to play. 

And you know, some of the things that they can now focus on because they’re not opening paper mail or, or stamping invoices are things like account reconciliation. Before as an AP manager, I did all of that myself. You know, I reconciled the AP liability account, but I also had several others. No one could help me and so it was just me doing it all. So empower your people to take on some of those tasks and spend time looking to see who my top vendors are. Who am I paying the most for X? And then, “Hey, let’s try and negotiate with them.” Maybe not you. But you now have the data to take to someone to make that call. It’s about using that time to shore up your foundation. I am so passionate.  


What’s step number one to get the foundation shored up? I hope you’re not going to cry. 


I think I’m going to get emotional, but it just comes from experience, is your vendor master cleanup. 


Can I ask you a question? Because I have heard this thing over and over again. And is this somewhat of a common understanding or is this something that you feel like the world should know?  


Well, I think it’s a common understanding, but people don’t want to think about it because they don’t have time to do it. There we go. But it affects so many things. We had to take the time to stop and scrub that data, to pull that list together and go through it and look for all the duplicates, look for the missing information. And then standardize the entry format.  

So, you know, if you put FedEx in there, you may have one person that sets up FedEx with Fed dash X and then someone else with just FedEx and someone else with a capital E. No, you have to have a standardized process because your system will look for duplicates, but if something is different, it doesn’t know.  

So, but we had to actually get some, some temps in to help us do that because it was just so time-consuming. And then we had to reach out to all the vendors to get new W9s. And you can just imagine what that process was like. But the good thing, the good, there is good news here. Once you do it, yeah, then stay on top of it, and you’re done. Like, it’s certainly not something you should have to do every year. It’s all about doing it that first time, biting the bullet, doing it, and then maintaining it and having good due diligence processes.   


What happens after that, though? So now we have clean up your vendor master and then what’s a couple of other things that folks could do with free time? 


So as I mentioned, we’ve got the vendor analysis to see who we’re paying, who we’re having problems with, maybe, you know, compare some pricing. But again, it’s not the AP team to negotiate pricing, but we’re the ones with the data. And invoices are getting in there in a timely fashion and we’re able to see and run reports instead of using spreadsheets, it’s powerful because then you can better equip your procurement department or whoever is ordering to do some better negotiation. And if it’s not a reduction in price, at least give us a discount if we pay you early. Right. It’s having all of those, but also doing more accounting-related tasks. So doing those account reconciliations, learning the bank rec process, making sure your outstanding check follow-up is up to date because that’s another thing that people let slide. Because they don’t have time to track down that vendor that we paid that check to last year.  


Do you think the rest of the company knows that these things are sliding? 


Probably not. Not until a problem arises. And unfortunately, that’s not good.  


What do you always say about that? No one appreciates AP or even realizes that they’re there until something goes wrong – an invoice is coded wrong or it’s paid late – and then it’s all of a sudden we have an AP department and they’re not doing their job even though 99% of the other time we did it fine. 


There’s so many things that, that you can take, folks, and like I mentioned earlier about scaling without having to add additional headcount. Maybe you don’t need that AP specialist in that position, but maybe there’s now an opening as a staff accountant or whatever and let them learn and really upskill and learn new things. 


And as we’re moving just the world in general, moving more and more toward technology. You know, a lot of people my age or around my age – we didn’t grow up with technology. Right. So we have some learning to do. And the company, I think if you’re going to invest in technology, you need to invest in the training to help the people get there. So let those folks train, like actually take the time to learn what they’re doing.  


So, we’re talking main benefits of accounts payable automation. Reduce human errors and improve accuracy. Aid in business growth. Free up more time for higher level strategic initiatives. Absolutely. Yeah. I thought this was interesting. So, unite the workflow of the entire AP team. Okay, that sounds like we should print up some T-Shirts.  


I was going to say that’s a new slogan. 


Yeah, that’s a pretty good one. And then strengthen supplier relationships and better business payments. So reduce errors, help the company grow, free up time, unite and strengthen supply. 


Yeah. I completely agree with every single one of those and we’ve touched on a few of them.  


Yeah, we have. Which one kind of jumps out to you as like a main benefit.  


Well I think that one of the big things is freeing up the time, right? So again, I personally back in the day didn’t like stuffing envelopes with checks that again would take all day to do that. 

And who wants to do that? But being able to take that time and I think the one about the suppliers really doing some research into them is incredibly important because that does give AP a chance now to do something different. So now they can actually do some research and some historical data pooling and really be able to present that as a cost savings measure. 

So they really now become where before maybe they were in the background. Now it’s like, “Oh, I didn’t know that, you know, you could do that or whatever.” But also a lot of times the AP department is involved in like the T&E process as well. I know back at the company I worked for before I came to AvidXchange, I actually was over the whole T&E process as the AP manager. 

So there’s always improvements that can be made there from an audit standpoint, from a policy standpoint. Yeah. So that just popped in my mind, like take the time to look through your policies and see if they’re up to date and if they’re actually, more than likely, changes will need to be made to them.  


A couple of other benefits that are big is that when you get rid of the paper, the paper actually turns into information. Information’s data. Data can be mined and reported. But then there’s also an association to limiting fraud. What would you tell folks? 


A 100%. And that is something that I take very seriously. You know, we’re trained to look for fraudulent activity but when you’re waiting a month for a statement to come in a lot can happen in that month’s time. Yeah. That is so important and it’s getting back to the basics, the fundamentals, the, the audit process that AP goes through with invoices and expense reports and T& E in general.  


So we’ve talked about a lot and then one of the things that we haven’t talked about that I want to kind of finish on is aid in business growth. And the setup here is, you know, I’ve been with AvidXchange for a while, since its inception.  

And I remember the first maybe 100 ish customers we had, had two things in common. One was they had centralized accounting and spread out operations. Now that’s a fairly modern thing. And the ability to centralize, you know, automation is going to help that. But then two, they had a need to grow. And the whole notion was we don’t want to get rid of somebody, but we want to basically do more with the same amount of people. I don’t want to say do more with less. Right. But it allowed them to grow their business without adding staff. Yeah. What would your comment be about that? 


It’s so true. It’s so true. And you know, we talk to customers now that have been live for quite some time and we hear that all the time. Like, you know, “We added so many properties like on the real estate side or we did this or that and we didn’t have to add anyone.” 


People don’t necessarily think, “Well, oh my gosh, my workload is going to double. I know this acquisition is coming down the road. Right. So I better go leverage some technology.” 


No, I don’t think they think that way at all. No, they don’t. And I think now they just, really to this day, we hear, I hear the most on the calls that I’m on are people just saying, there has to be a better way.  

Like, why am I signing all of these checks? And you’ve heard me say this a million times too, is that as the younger generation starts to come in and really start to move up to that management level and whatnot – they’re like, why are we doing this? Because paper checks, for example, we don’t do that. I don’t, I think it was like five years ago, the last time I wrote a check and yada, yada, but I’m just saying that, you know, they know that this isn’t right. That there’s got to be a better way. And we hear it all the time. I think too, it helps that as companies automate, they’re kind of talking about it to their peers. 

Yeah, because we hear that a lot. Well, you know, I’m in this CFO group and you know, several of them are automated and they’re like it’s the best thing since sliced bread and da da da da So I want to check it out and hear more about  


It’s good advice if there’s anyone around you or if there’s anyone in your head that says, “There’s got to be a better way.” Yeah, start looking at some tech. 

There are other parts of the accounting process that accounts payable automation touches, you know – there’s the payment piece, you know, which we’re really pretty big on but then there’s also like contracts on the front end and purchase orders, two- and three-way match. So when you hear things like purchase orders, what do you typically tell people as far as the benefits are concerned? 


Oh, huge. Again, a lot of people, you know, especially in the small to mid-size range are still using Excel to manage their purchasing process. So it’s not really a procurement process. And especially if you’re creating the purchase order after the fact. Yeah. So a purchase order should be created when you need something, when you know that you have a need to order something. It should be approved first, sent out, and then when the goods or services are received, then it should be received. 

And then once that, you know, match happens, when we talk about PO matching, you’re literally matching your purchase order to what you received, to what you were invoiced for. And when all those things match up or are within a small tolerance, like maybe 5%, then those invoices should just go straight through. 

Yeah. 20 years ago – mainly the industries that use purchase orders were those that were in like manufacturing and retail because they were dealing with inventory. But more and more organizations and different types of industries are starting to see the benefit of purchase orders. There are a lot of them, but I think one of the big ones from an AP perspective is that approval. 


It’s a control. 


100%. And it makes life a lot easier on the back end on the invoice side and the payment side because you already have all the approvals up front. So just let it go through. So it speeds up that payment process too.  


AvidXchange does all of that. 


Absolutely. We do. We have both two- and three-way match. You’re able to set tolerance in, you’re able to receive goods. So it’s very powerful. And again, I’ve, I’ve really seen a change in the last five years. I’d say really, it’s become more on the forefront and we’re hearing, like I said, industries that before didn’t think they need them or like I want them, even if it’s just for maybe large capital purchases, but they still see the need. So you have to be able to integrate with their process or they can just purchase ours. We have a robust AvidBuy product where you can create requisitions, purchase orders, receive those goods in and match to the invoice. So yeah, it’s important.  


All right. So let’s do some sound bites here. First question is how do you know, based on your transaction volume, if you need AP automation or not? 


If you’re able to handle your AP in a reasonable time, code your invoices, get them entered in, and get them paid, maybe you have an extremely low volume, maybe it’s your only processing 50 invoices a month – sometimes it’s not just the number, right? It’s knowing that they’re going to grow. So we’re approached a lot by companies that are maybe processing 100 invoices and payments a month. 


I was going to ask you, what’s the lowest you’ve ever worked with? 


I think we’ve worked with about 50.  


Do you want to know mine? Zero. 


Well, why would they even?  


Well, they just started the company. Oh, and then they were doing exactly what you’re saying. They had this growth.  


I think it really depends on it’s all about creating efficiencies and a better process. But I can’t stress. You know, this time savings is phenomenal, but also having the ability to access your data is so important whenever you need it. And I think people really found that out during COVID.  


Question number two, will AP automation change the accounting process we currently have?  


Yes and no. Okay. I can’t, I can’t do a yes. On the yes side, it’s going to change it. For sure. It’s going to make it more efficient. It’s going to improve it. Right.  


But on the no side, what do you mean by that? 


It’s the foundation, back to the basics. All of the internal controls that you’ve built around your processes won’t change.  


So what’s the true cost of your current accounts payable process? Would you, what would you tell people about that? 


Most people have no idea. And then when they guess, they, they think it’s way less than what it really is. But you have to consider all of the things that factor in, not just the salaries and the benefits of the people doing the job, but all of the other costs involved. Just getting the payments made and the postage and the envelopes and the check printer. So there’s a lot more to it. And you really do have to sit down and analyze it. But that’s where we can help because that’s – an ROI is an important tool to be able to show them their savings, but also, you know, what they’re able to gain from automation.  


So how will accounts payable automation work with my current accounting system?  


Oh, I love that question. I mean, it’s going to integrate. So, you know, you’re using the AP automation tool to be able to capture your invoices, code them and approve them. But at the end of the day, the accounting system remains a system of records. So all of that data, It’s going to sink back over into the accounting system where it should, you know, where it should live. 

You definitely, that’s one of the most important things you need to look for when you’re looking for automation is making sure that you’re looking at cannot integrate with your accounting system.  


I think that’s a big fear, by the way, and people are always asking us, oh, not, not, not now, but in the early days so you’re going to become an accounting system one day, aren’t you? And the answer is nope.  

All right, so last question. How does the implementation process work?  


And a lot of people think that they have to have a lot of dedicated IT resources, and that’s just not the case anymore. And why is that? Well, it’s because we’re operating in the cloud, so they’re not having to install anything. 

For instance, people here on our implementation team that have done this hundreds of times, right? And we’ve got really, really strong integrations with a lot of accounting systems. So a lot of times integration or onboarding can go and just be, you know, 30 to 45 days, depending on your size and the products that you’ve bought. 

But it’s really just about collaboration. It’s taking the time, you know you want this done. Take the time out to attend these calls to get your data to us so that we can load it in, get your portal configured. So it’s really not that bad. Most people think it’s going to be a six-to-eight-month long process, like implementing a new accounting system. 

Yeah. Not like that. I know that’s the first place they go. Oh, 100%. Yeah. Not like that at all.  


All right. Rhonda Greene, thank you so much for your time and your wisdom. I know people are going to get a lot out of this, but I appreciate you coming by. 


Absolutely. You know, I am such a nerd. I love talking about this stuff. It’s what I do every day. And again it comes from a good place because I’ve been there and I know the difference it can make. You can really tell. Absolutely. Oh, well, thank you. There you go. Thanks, Chris, for having me. 


Thanks for listening to the Net 30 podcast presented by AvidXchange. I desperately need to know what you think about this. Leaving a five-star review would be fantastic. You can subscribe to the channel too. And, oh, by the way, while you’re waiting for the next episode, head over to avidxchange.com to learn more. One more thing. If this conversation has somehow piqued your interest, which I really hope it has, about accounts payable automation from AvidXchange, there is an additional link to get a demonstration of our solution. I always say it shows way better than it tells, so click on that link, fill out the information, and someone will be in contact with you. So thanks again for listening to the Net 30 podcast, and we’ll see you really soon. 

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